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What was wrong with me? Shouldn’t I be crying and grieving and all? But the most I could do was touch my lips over and over, like maybe if I remembered the kiss exactly, I would melt into some decent sorrow, the way a normal person would feel.

No. I just felt dull. Deadened and distant and dumb.

After a while, I decided this was no way for a captain to act. A good captain doesn’t hang about sulking, trying to prod himself into emotion; a good captain looks after his ship. Maybe when the crew members died, one of them had left the water running, or a pressure pot boiling up coffee. In my years at the Troyen moonbase, it’d been my job to watch for things like that. So I decided to walk around Willow, every square centimeter, hoping maybe I’d find something productive to do instead of brooding all by myself.

That’s how I found the hive-queen. A real one. Except she was just as dead as the crew.

The venom sacs on the queen were inflamed bright green, just like the holo I’d seen in the lounge. I guess that’s where the hologram came from — the captain had taken a picture of the queen as she sat in the ship’s hold.

From the look of the hold, the queen had done more than just sit there: she’d tried to rip straight through the walls with her claws. You wouldn’t think a creature of flesh and blood would be strong enough to gouge out whole chunks of steel-plast… but the far bulkhead was ribboned with huge ragged furrows, so deep I could stick my hand in up to the wrist.

If the walls looked bad, the queen’s claws looked worse. With all that smashing and bashing, her claws had got their points hammered down blunt and their armor plate fractured like peanut brittle. Sticky brown blood was still oozing up through the cracks in her shell.

It made me go sick in the stomach to see a queen all damaged and smashed. Injured. Broken. But it was a good thing she’d hurt herself too much to keep whacking on the walls; otherwise, she would have bashed through the hull and let hard vacuum into the ship.

Why was Willow transporting her here on her own, without attendants? Queens go mad if they aren’t milked every day. Her poor venom sacs were like two swollen balloons bulging up where her tail met her torso: both sacs had turned grass green against her yellow body, so you couldn’t possibly miss how full they were. Queen Verity once told me it hurt like daggers to go unmilked for even a few hours past ripeness, and this queen…

This queen wasn’t Queen Verity. And at the moment, I didn’t want to think about Verity, not with one of her royal sisters lying dead in front of me. Which one was this, I wondered. Queen Fortitude? Clemency? Honor? Or one of the queens-in-waiting who escaped from deep freeze while Troyen was spinning into civil war?

Me, I couldn’t tell; Verity was the only queen I really knew. The palace’s chief of protocol claimed that Verity would feel grossly insulted if I ever set eyes on another queen.

High Queen Verity had been fiercely, deeply jealous about me… but then, she’d been fiercely, deeply jealous about all her husbands. 3 WATCHING THE QUEEN

That night I had bad dreams: a woman dying in my arms, but I couldn’t tell whether she was the blotchy-faced admiral or Samantha. Her death left something black and oily on my hands — everything I touched got smudged all over with the grease. I looked up, and floating overhead was a mirror showing that the stuff covered my face too, smeared thick everywhere… till suddenly, the oily gunk went one way and I went the other, so there were two of us standing side by side. Me, and then a second me made of sludge.

The sludge — me screamed and screamed and screamed.

Then a different dream: being chased by a queen in venom-frenzy, down the long promenade that swept along the side of Verity’s palace. All kinds of people cluttered the pavement, humans, Mandasars, Fasskisters, Divians, everyone hanging about, getting in the way; and I had to dodge around them or knock them over, which drove me frantic with frustration even though the queen never seemed to close the gap behind me. She ran like she could catch me anytime, but was toying with me, letting me tire myself out. Now and then she’d aim her stingers at me, and they’d spray me down with venom, like fire hoses. Eventually, the promenade got so slimy with bright green poison, I slipped and fell down hard. Before I could get up again, the queen was bending over me… only it wasn’t a real queen, but Samantha, with her head on a queen’s body…

I woke in the darkness, all prickled with sweat. Alone in my cabin. Alone on the ship. Trembling with cold night terrors.

That’s when it finally hit home: just how alone I really was. Nobody else on Willow but corpses. Maybe no living thing within light-years.

As alone as a human could get.

The realization spooked me. Gave me the rabid creeps. I suddenly got the idea that any second I’d hear a scratch at the door: the dead woman wanting another kiss, except now she was some withered skeletal thing, moaning with hunger. Or maybe it would be the queen with her blood-cracked claws, trying to break down the door and stab me with her stingers, just to ease the pain in her venom sacs.

I held my breath, waiting for the scratching noise. Scared stiff to move for fear something outside would hear me. But nothing happened. The dead don’t really get up and walk… even when you panic yourself into thinking it’s possible.

After a while, I thought of turning on a light. I did it fast, before I had a chance to get the creeps about that too. With the light on, it wasn’t so hard to get out of bed and get dressed; maybe it would be a good idea to go to the cafeteria for something to drink. Not alcohol — I was acting captain. But in stories, people talk about warm milk making you feel better. I couldn’t remember ever drinking warm milk, but I thought why not give it a try.

The corridors were quiet. And empty. And dimmed down to twilight because this was Willow’s sleep shift. I could have ordered the ship-soul to power everything to daytime brightness or to play bouncy music wherever I went, but that wouldn’t fool me. The manuals pretend that night and day are just arbitrary conventions on a starship, that you can flip them back to front and no one will know the difference. Me, I felt the difference. Deep in my bones, I felt pure night smothering all around me — like it’d been waiting for years and years to catch me alone, and finally had its chance to grab me by the throat.

Samantha would have slapped me for imagining those kind of things. She used to roll her eyes and laugh: "You’re such a child, Edward." Usually I’d laugh too and say she was the child — younger than me by a whole ten minutes.

But I knew I was acting like a kid, letting myself get scared of nothing. Fifty-seven years old; I should know better. Halfway to the cafeteria, I turned around and headed for the captain’s quarters instead. I was supposed to be master and commander, not some puss-puppy trying to make it all better with warm milk. As of now, I’d devote myself to captainly things instead of hiding back in my cabin.

Besides, it’d be harder to have bad dreams in a captain’s bunk, wouldn’t it? Captains don’t let themselves get carried away by imagination.

"Ship-soul, attend," I called out loudly as I entered the captain’s room. "Vidscreen on, forward view."

The room had a nice big monitor, filling up a whole half of one wall. The screen flicked on, showing a calm empty starscape. Nothing out there but nothingness.

"Aft view," I said.

More stars in the infinite black. No nightmares chasing us.

I took a breath. "Interior view, recreation lounge."

The screen changed to show the lounge and all the bodies, still exactly where they’d fallen. Most of the holograms were gone: their battery power had run down. Instead of the Roman soldier and the alien thistle bush, an ordinary man and woman lay crumpled against each other, both of them naked except for the harnesses that held their holo-projectors.